Early Morning Nets

One calm but overcast morning this week, the Bird Ringers arrived early and set up their nets in the meadows before we were even awake – you definitely need to be a morning person to be a bird ringer. The warbler migration is now underway and, over the course of a few hours, they ringed eight different species of them. For us, it was a very useful warbler revision course as well as being an immense privilege to be able to photograph these beautiful birds up close.

Luckily we had emerged to start the day in time to see the indisputable star of the morning come out of the nets – a wood warbler, a species never before seen in the meadows.

A Wood Warbler with its bright white tummy and intense lemon-yellow face and eyestripe

There was a Willow Warbler in the net at the same time:

A Willow Warbler has a yellower tummy

The two species are generally quite similar though:

Comparing the Willow Warbler on the left and Wood Warbler on the right

Four Sedge Warblers were ringed. This one shows the lovely spotty necklace that young Sedge Warblers often have on their chests – and the purple mark on the Bird Ringers hand suggests that the bird has been eating blackberries or elderberries:

Lovely wing feathers as well

And a Reed Warbler, although this bird would just not sit still to have its photograph taken and consequently this photo doesn’t really illustrate its arrow-shaped head as I had hoped to:

A Garden Warbler has no terribly obvious distinguishing features other than a pale eye ring:

One of the Bird Ringer’s photos of a garden warbler feasting on the elderberries in his garden this week and showing its pale eye ring. He used to be a professional wildlife photographer and I think you can tell

A Blackcap was the sixth warbler species to be ringed:

A Common Whitethroat was the seventh..

..and, finally, an extremely young and fluffy Chiffchaff was the eighth warbler species to be ringed that morning:

Several non-warbler species were also caught, including this young Yellowhammer:

An adult female Linnet with intricate patterning of her head feathers:

And a scruffy little Long-tailed Tit:

It was a really interesting and memorable morning.

I read that this current drought is now predicted to continue through August and September and most of Kent is to have a hosepipe ban imposed from 12th August. Our area in the far east of the county is actually not included in the ban but we are trying to be very circumspect with our water use nonetheless – although we desperately do not want the ponds to dry out completely, killing much of the aquatic life within.

Looking out across the yellow meadows in early August

A lot of new trees were planted across the kingdom last winter under the Queen’s Green Canopy scheme, marking her seventy years on the throne. I hope that they are all being watered through this drought or there will surely be big losses.

Bottles of water being carried up for the new weeping beech, our Queen’s Green Canopy tree

Looking to the future with drier summers and tempestuous winters being foretold, we are thinking of ways to make the garden and the meadows more drought and storm tolerant. The Queen’s Green Canopy initiative starts up again in October until the end of the jubilee year and we hope to plant some more trees in this second phase, this time making them tough ones such as Scots pines or holm oaks.

One morning our attention was caught by our resident crows who had flown to the top of a holm oak and were making the most tremendous racket. They then launched off and we saw what all the fuss was about as a majestic red kite soared over the meadows, with its accompanying band of crows desperate to escort it out of their territory. When I’m visiting my father, I can look up at any point and probably see several of these wonderful birds soaring in the skies over Maidenhead. They were very successfully reintroduced in The Chilterns in the 90s but their subsequent expansion outwards hasn’t yet reached this furthest most point of Kent.

A red kite making a brief cameo appearance before being chased off by crows

A couple of days later, a single red kite was seen again, this time unmolested by territorial residents.

Initially it was quite low over the meadows but had got up quite high by the time I mobilised my camera

We exercise a rigorous zero tolerance policy of some plants here. In particular, we don’t want any seeding at all of alexanders, ragwort and wild parsnip, but we also try to control spear thistle and creeping thistle. All of these plants are scarily successful at reproducing themselves and have demonstrated that they would quickly become dominating bullies if we let our guard down.

In August, it is time to turn our attention to the wild parsnip which has come into flower and, unlike the rest of the meadow around it, does not seem to be adversely affected by this year’s drought. There is a large patch of this plant in the first meadow and a slightly smaller area of them in the second and, as I said, our approach is to make sure none of it seeds. We hope that eventually the existing plants will dwindle and disappear as well. It is a biennial plant but there is the worry that, by doing this, we have turned it perennial – however, we currently don’t know what else to do and at least the problem is contained and not getting any worse.

The yellow flower heads of the wild parsnip patch in the second meadow
Starting to cut the patch down and get the plants away before they set seed
The large wild parsnip area in the first meadow is also now cut and removed

On a walk along the cliffs around St Margaret’s this week, we saw that the broad wild flower margin created by the National Trust has become dominated by wild parsnip at this time of year. I think that this photo justifies the strict stance that we have adopted in the meadows. Wild parsnip does have benefits for pollinators, but it reproduces itself aggressively and has a sap that contains photo-sensitive chemicals that can cause skin burns.

Now that it is early August, the wildlife of the meadows and the wood seems to be in the doldrums and the trail cameras are very quiet. The crows and the other corvids are going through a moult, with their breeding season over, and they can look quite amusing. Here is a magpie:

..and this Jay. Note the ear hole set surprisingly low in the head:

There are always lots of Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) visiting the flowers in the meadows. This, however, is a male Red-tailed Cuckoo Bee (Bombus rupestris). The fur is less dense and there are no pollen sacks on their legs – these bees are brood parasites and do not have to do the work of collecting pollen:

Cuckoo bees lay their eggs into the nests of other bees, reminiscent of the behaviour of cuckoo birds.

The Red-tailed Cuckoo Bee looks very similar to its host, the Red-tailed Bumblebee. The female cuckoo bee will sneak into a Red-tailed Bumblebee nest, kill the queen and lay her own eggs. The worker bees are then fooled into rearing her young instead of their own, which is all pretty fascinating stuff.

In the wood, I am very much enjoying all the invertebrate life that the marjoram glade is attracting:

Comma butterfly
Silver-washed Fritillary

But, here too, things seem very quiet.

A Marsh Tit at the owl box
Adult and juvenile Green Woodpecker

I want to finish today with our sweet-natured but highly-strung dog who is currently undergoing training with an ex-police dog handler. We have a grandchild due in the autumn and, amongst many other things, this dog is scared of children.

She is making great progress and we are so proud of her, but she will shortly be nine years old which just goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Off to the Congo

The autumn migration is always an exciting time here as birds converge from around the country awaiting good conditions to cross the sea on their way south. This year the season got off to a thumping start when a new bird species for the meadows, the cuckoo, stopped by briefly en route to the Congo Basin in central Africa.

The cuckoo is famous for being a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nest of another species, and it is this host that then does all the work to bring the young cuckoo up

In the UK, we have lost a disquieting 40% of our cuckoos in the last twenty years and the British Trust for Ornithology has been satellite tracking them on their migration for over a decade to try to find out why. Much has already been discovered about the routes they take, some of which are more successful than others, and their important stop-off points along the way, which can hopefully be protected now that their importance is known.

The cuckoo that landed on a perch in the meadows this week will have been born this year, most probably in the nest of a Reed Warbler, Dunnock or Meadow Pipit. It will never have met its true parents, who will have left to return to Africa back in June once the eggs were laid.

After this cuckoo hatched out of its egg, it will have pushed all its hosts’ eggs or chicks out of the nest so that it alone received the food being brought in by its adoptive parents. By the time it fledged, it will have been much bigger than them but they will still have continued to loyally feed it for another couple of weeks whilst it found its feet.

A photo of an adult cuckoo (Vogelartinfo courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike 3.0). The barring of the plumage is thought to mimic a Sparrowhawk in order to temporarily scare the host birds away and give the female cuckoo a window to lay her egg into their nest

Several weeks after its true parents departed for Africa, the young cuckoo was then ready to start its own journey south to follow them. When it fleetingly touched down in the meadows this week, its solo journey to The Congo had only just begun and there is no one to show it the way – it is all really rather incredible and I wish it the best possible luck on its perilous journey south.

There have been lots of birds sitting on that same perch this week. Here is an atmospheric photo of the wonderful starlings:

I think this is a crow sitting on the camera rather than the perch..

…but there is a bird on the perch behind it – and why is the crow still there?

The crow obviously feels, because of its size, that it is safe from sparrowhawks.

This smaller bird, though, was not so fortunate:

The kestrel has also been seen on the same perch as well as several other places this week, hunting for rodents.

A pair of kestrels

But it is a magpie rather than a kestrel that has been photographed with a rodent hanging out of its beak:

Magpies and crows are also plucking heads of grain from the crop growing in the neighbouring farmer’s field.

This next photo looks like time lapse photography, but is in fact three magpies, the top one doing a loop the loop.

This house sparrow photo also looks a bit like time lapse, I thought:

Like the kestrel, the weasel’s primary food source is mice and voles and its small, long body allows it to follow the rodents into their underground burrows:

We have only seen a weasel here once before and so this photo was very interesting – it is such a pocket-sized predator

There have been several yellowhammers singing along the hedgerows this summer and it is now lovely to see these three juveniles as an indication that things have gone well for them.

Droughts such as we are experiencing this summer are very difficult for animals that would ordinarily eat worms as a significant part of their diet, such as badgers. Devastatingly, all three of this year’s badger cubs perished once they had been weaned, unable to get worms out of the hard ground. The adults themselves are having to find alternative food sources where they can.

The yellow meadows this week

We had noticed a Common Wasp nest in the chalk bank a week or two ago. Now, the badgers have also seen – or rather smelt – it and have dug it out to get at the juicy larvae. They must get badly stung while they do this but it doesn’t seem to stop them.

A wasp nest dug out, and the chalk debris spilling down the bank
A few desultory wasps continue to come and go into the wreck of their former home

In the wood, the marjoram glade has come into its full glory and is dancing with bees and butterflies:

The sinister-looking ferruginous bee-grabber (Sicus ferrugineus), with its curled-under abdomen, is feeding on the marjoram. This is a parasitic fly that lays its eggs into bumblebees, I’m afraid, often grabbing the bees mid air
A tawny owl coming to bathe in the pond during a hot night
A juvenile green woodpecker and some rabbits
A magnificent buzzard

I travel up to Maidenhead every fortnight to see my father and, whilst there, always try to visit the Spade Oak gravel pit in Little Marlow. It is good place to spot birds and, fantastically, has recently become a nature reserve.

The lake with its popular tern rafts

This year there are two pairs of breeding great crested grebes but one of these pairs has been beset with problems. Last week its eggs were predated for a second time.

Great Crested Grebe on its nest of pond weed

There is always something of interest to see when we visit the reserve – but this time we were in for a particular treat. It seems that the pair of grebes have sufficient stamina to start egg laying once again and were displaying to each other and performing their courtship ritual, the famous weed dance. They both dived down and resurfaced carrying weed in their beaks. They then advanced towards each other with their neck feathers puffed up.

It was a wonder to behold and I hope it will be third time lucky for them with this fresh breeding attempt. We will be watching their progress with great interest on future visits.

Our son and his girlfriend are still in Sri Lanka as they continue their world tour.

The endangered sloth bear. It eats fruits, ants and termites
The lovely face of a sloth bear
A leopard, Sri Lanka’s largest predator excluding man
Two young elephants and, goodness, the one on the left is definitely male

Sri Lanka has been much in the news recently but they have found the country calmer than might be expected on reading the reports in the British press. Their time there, though, is nearly up and they are off to the Maldives this weekend.

Bees and Butterflies

Wild honey bees nest in woodland in the hollows of rotting trees, but these natural nest sites are thought to be in short supply. The Gardeners Beehive has been designed to mimic a hollow tree and to provide an alternative comfortable home for the bees, but ours has been standing empty in a shady spot under a cherry tree for a good few years now.

The Gardeners Beehive

Should a swarm of honey bees ever find it and move in, they could live in peace without human interference and keep all the honey for themselves, which is used to feed the colony through the winter. At the same time we would benefit from their pollination in the meadows.

However, as so often seems to be the case here, things haven’t happened quite as intended. Honey bees have indeed arrived this summer but have taken up residence in the little owl box rather than the Gardeners Beehive nearby.

The little owl box in a copse of trees
Little owl nest boxes have a tunnel leading from the entrance into the main cavity of the box

There have never been little owls nesting in this box and they have lost their opportunity now even if they wanted to – I understand that this bee colony might be here for several years.

On the subject of bees, a bird species that loves to eat them has been added to the meadows bird list at number 92. The Bird Ringer heard and saw two Bee-eaters flying over the meadows. He didn’t get a photo but this is what these colourful birds look like:

A photo of a pair of Bee-eaters by Pierre Dalous under Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.0 unported licence

The Bird Ringer came with his nets this week to do the first ringing session of the autumnal season. By this point of the year, he is allowed to play the songs of birds that will have definitely finished breeding such as warblers. But in the event he had a quiet morning and only caught a young robin and three juvenile Great Tits:

A young robin, already starting to develop its red breast

My first thought was that this next photo was a young robin with a horrible growth on its face but then, with relief, I realised that actually it must be Song Thrush carrying a snail:

In the heat of this past week, winged ants have been taking to the air from the multitudinous ant nests in the meadows. We know this because Black-headed Gulls arrived in their hundreds, seemingly from nowhere, and flew round and round catching them – what a bonanza it must be for the birds. For us, it is one of the summer spectacles that we eagerly watch out for:

Black-headed Gulls busy ‘anting’ in the second meadow

Black-headed and Herring Gulls were also hunting the ants on the ground, wherever there was short grass:

One of the Herring Gulls had lost feathers around its eye making it look goggley-eyed:

These starlings are probably ant-hunting too:

As well as enjoying some communal drinking:

I include this photo because it looks like one bird has placed a comforting wing round the other:

Screaming parties of swifts are frequently to be seen and heard shooting around the skies above the meadows catching the flying ants and other insects. One afternoon, there was a pair flying as I was out in the meadows and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes – one flew straight up to a nest box on the side of the house and went in. We have been trying to persuade swifts to nest in these boxes for so long – had I really seen one going in at long last? I sat down and waited while the second swift made repeated high-speed rushes at the box, only to veer away at the last moment. After about ten minutes, the first swift emerged from the box and rejoined the other one and I was filled with a warm feeling of triumph and jubilation.

A photo from earlier this month. We have put black squares with faux white droppings below the holes to make them more obvious to birds flying past at speed. The swift went into the righthand box and, now that I properly look at it, can I see signs of wear on the board below the hole?

I wonder if swifts been going in and out of this box a lot this summer and we just haven’t noticed before. They are certainly very quick and easy to miss. Or perhaps these are juvenile birds checking out potential nest sites for the future. We shall have to see what happens next year.

Having finished rearing their young, the magpies have gone into moult. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but this one looks more vulture than corvid:

It is a great time of year for butterflies and the headlines have well and truly been grabbed by this beautiful Swallowtail butterfly seen feeding on red valerian by the allotment yesterday. This is the 24th butterfly species to be seen in the meadows:

I love how the black lines on the wings extend onto the body

There is a very rare British race, britannicus, of Swallowtails that is restricted to the fenlands of Norfolk and which unfortunately only uses milk-parsley, a plant of wetlands, as its larval food plant. The butterfly in the meadows, however, will be a visitor from continental Europe and will be from the gorganus race. This European race is a lot less fussy and will use various umbellifers to lay eggs on, including wild carrot of which we have an awful lot here. Is this a female butterfly and will she lay eggs here? That’s an exciting thought.

It has been so long since we have had any meaningful rain and the meadows are yellow rather than green. On a cooler morning this week we were walking past this long grassy area in the foreground here:

We noticed that there was a large Common Blue roost within the grasses. There must have been more than fifty of these butterflies, little intense colour pops amongst the dry yellow grasses:

Six Common Blues roosting in this photo (four open and two closed up)
Marbled White on Ragwort
Wall on Greater Knapweed

I am aware that there have not been too many burnet moths around this year and actually I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of the narrow-bordered five spot ones at all.

Six-spot burnet moth

This large pupa was tucked away behind a trail camera, strapped to an apple tree:

Its associated dried-out and hairy caterpillar skin was also nearby. Although it looks all very interesting, unfortunately I have not been able to identify it. I suppose I could put the pupa into container and wait to see what hatches out, but the responsibility of that intervention feels too great and I have returned the camera and pupa back to where they were so that they can get on with things on their own.

We are visiting the wood a bit more frequently than normal to keep the ponds topped up in this drought. I don’t think there is a natural water source anywhere in the wider wood that won’t be dried up by now and so providing water is definitely being appreciated by the woodland animals.

This is how we transport water to the wood. These plastic bottles used to contain distilled water for steam irons and that’s an awful lot of ironing I’ve done over the years

Buzzards are such big, heavy birds:

A Sparrowhawk is much slighter with long skinny legs

This Sparrowhawk seen in the meadows this week demonstrates that they also have very long toes, all the better to grasp their prey:

Tawny Owls are often seen bathing in the woodland ponds in the heat of summer nights:

This owl is not ringed and so is not one of the chicks from the owl box this spring. Apparently young tawny owls are still dependant on their parents for food for up to three months after fledging and so the young birds should still be around in the wood somewhere.

Young Green Woodpecker:

Recently fledged Bullfinch:

Adult badger and cub:

The two natural bowls in coppice stools that we have been filling with water also continue to be well visited:

There was a frog in one when we went to top it up. It’s odd to think of a frog hopping through the woodland:

The marjoram glade is now out in full flower:

We stood for ten minutes one sunny afternoon and counted eight species of butterfly on the marjoram. Brown Argus, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, Silver-washed Fritillary…

…as well as Green Veined White and Gatekeeper. There were also Mint Moths flying, who are particularly partial to marjoram:

We had hoped that the marjoram glade was going to be good this year and so it is proving.

Finally, here are two photos that show how different consecutive years can be:

2021 on the left was wettish, with the grass still green and the ponds filled with water at this time of year. 2022 couldn’t be more different and sadly the weather forecast for the next two weeks doesn’t hold any promise of rain. But this drought will surely break eventually and for us that can’t come soon enough.

Embracing the Mosaic

The country’s dormouse population has declined by a half since the year 2000 and unfortunately it is still falling. This weekend I attended a dormouse ecology and conservation course at the Wildwood Trust, a wildlife park in Kent that showcases British wildlife and is home to over two hundred native animals, including a precious population of captive dormice. The young from these captive dormice are used in reintroductions each year, releasing them into suitable woodland in counties where dormice have previously become extinct.

A dormouse that we found last autumn when clearing out the bird boxes in the wood

These reintroductions have proved to be mostly successful so long as correct woodland management continues to be maintained. I have now learned that dormouse wood management should be aiming towards producing a mosaic of small areas of hazel all at different ages, with a 15-20 year coppice rotation for maximum nut production and a vibrant, mixed-height understory. We shall now have to have a rethink about the work that we do in the wood this coming winter, because this is different information to what we had previously learnt was best woodland management. We had formerly been advised to coppice on a seven year rotation and try to get the coppiced areas large so that a lot of sun reached the woodland floor.

The course involved us going out into East Blean Woods in the afternoon to check the dormouse boxes there. We didn’t find any dormice unfortunately, but we did find this wren’s nest.

A mosaic approach is also what we should also be working towards in the meadows as well, according to an entomologist who visited this week to advise on ways to best manage the land with invertebrates in mind.

By creating mosaics, we will be creating habitats for a larger diversity of invertebrates without necessarily having to know what they are. He will be submitting a report in due course but we already have some food for thought, such as doing a spring cut in some areas once the grass first starts to grow strongly. This will accelerate the nutrient depletion in these places, producing additional variety in habitat.

The mosaic approach in the meadows seems to make a lot of sense to us and is one that we had in fact already started, by leaving areas uncut each year and having a different cutting regime for the reptile area. It does, however, represent quite a departure from aiming for wholesale reversion to chalk grassland for the second meadow and classic hay meadow for the first that was recommended to us by Kent Wildlife Trust as a result of their survey soon after we arrived here.

Photo from June 2021

Once again this year we have failed to interest any swifts in nesting in the boxes on the side of the house. For several summers now we have been playing swift calls up into the sky through a loud speaker, positioned near the nest boxes. The birds are certainly very interested, and squadrons of them frequently and repeatedly shoot past to see what all the fuss is about. It puts us in mind of this sort of thing:

Hawk fast jet trainers – my father-in-law was in the RAF and worked on these aircraft when they were first introduced the mid 70s. Photo courtesy of Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF. Wikimedia Commons

But we are yet to see a single swift enter a box.

A swift flying close to this very desirable semi-detached residence, but sadly deciding not to buy

Some days we forget to switch the calls on but still the birds come. They seem to be nesting in one of the houses down on the beach – perhaps they are amply provided with nesting opportunities there and don’t need these additional boxes. But, if they ever do, then they definitely know where to find ours by now. At the start of the season this year there were a maximum of six birds coming up to us on the cliff but this week there have been fourteen at times. I hope this means that they have had a successful breeding season and their young are now fledged and flying with them.

Of the four swift boxes here, only one is occupied by house sparrows this year. They have been nesting in there for many weeks now and have raised at least two broods – it is nice that something is using the boxes.

House sparrow emerging from her swift box

It is often very breezy here but, on those rare still days, an orangey-yellow blanket of pollution can be seen sitting out in the North Sea over the shipping lane.

When at sea, ships burn dirty, sludgy leftovers from the refining process and it has been estimated that, before 2020 anyway, a single giant container ship could produce as much cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as fifty million cars. But it is reassuring to know that progress is starting to be made towards addressing this problem – in 2020 a Global Sulphur Cap was imposed upon the world’s shipping, demanding that the maximum sulphur content for marine fuels be reduced from 3.5% to 0.5%. But by the look of that pollution blanket sitting over the shipping lane this week, there is still much work to be done.

This next image was ‘digiscoped’ from the house – that is, taken on a mobile phone attached to our telescope. It is another chance to appreciate the brown badger on the right that we have here this year:

One morning we saw a green moth fluttering in the meadow. It realised we were interested in it and was trying to hide and so sadly this is the best photo I managed to get:

However, the red checkerboarding on the wing margins is enough to identify it as a Sussex Emerald Moth. This is an extremely rare moth in Britain – there is a small colony on the vegetated shingle below the meadows and also at Dungeness but nowhere else in the country. The light of the moth trap at night has brought a Sussex Emerald up here once before, but we have never seen one spending time in the meadows of its own volition. There is plenty of its larval food plant, wild carrot, here but it also needs the vegetated shingle habitat that we can’t provide for it.

Magpie with small bird prey:

A group of mainly juvenile starling remain in the meadows. Ordinarily we would have expected them to have moved on by now:

Bullfinch like to nest in mixed deciduous woodland and I believe that we might be having a good year for them in our wood. Bullfinch are frequently being seen at various ponds throughout the wood and up to three adults at a time – there is surely more than one breeding pair here this year.

Three adult bullfinch

In this hot weather, the ponds in the wood are very popular:

Sparrowhawk
Fox dangling its front paws in the water
A pair of badgers

There are two old tree coppices in the wood where the cutting has created watertight bowls. For most of the year these form natural pools of collected rainwater that we suspect are valued by the woodland animals as water bowls. In the summer these do tend to dry up, but this week we refilled them and put cameras on them.

One pool is at the centre of an oak coppice:

Checking the cameras just a couple of days later showed that they were already being well used by all sorts of creatures:

The other natural pool looks a bit different:

But it too is now being well used:

It has been hot and dry for so long and now we find ourselves immersed in a red weather warning for extreme heat for today and tomorrow. In the hot summers of my childhood, my father would rig up the sprinkler on the back lawn and we kids would repeatedly run through it – it was such simple fun. This may well have been what my sister and I had just been doing here in this photo taken by my grandfather in the 1960s, although we had temporarily stopped for refreshments:

Photo by John Williams. My grandmother and brother, too old and too young to join in the fun, sit in the background

Back then, my father used to water the lawns through the summers to keep them nice and green. We wouldn’t think of doing that these days but we did decide that we had to water the 85m of new hedgerow in these exceptional circumstances. Even though it has been planted for three years and hopefully will have established an adequate root system, we inspected it and realised that we were at risk of losing parts of it unless action was taken.

The meadows are yellow, parched and crispy, the understorey in the woods is wilted and the ponds are gasping. We long for some rain.

Dormice At Last

Now that the wood is up and running as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, the fifty dormouse nest boxes are being inspected monthly for signs of dormouse occupation. We did July’s tour of the boxes in the extreme heat of last weekend but, once again, did not find any dormice within. Two or three of the boxes that had been empty last month did now contain a small amount of shredded material and so there was some hope for next time, we felt.

Hot and dehydrated, and having finished our trip round the boxes, we decided to quickly look in a few bird boxes before we went home. Immediately we found a family of dormice.

The dormouse nest was made out of leaves and woven grasses. The beautifully formed entrance is on the left

The hole of the box was plugged with a duster and it was lifted lock, stock and barrel off the tree and put into a large plastic bag. This would contain the dormice once the front was removed – the adult female and two juveniles within the box were moving around very fast indeed.

The two juvenile dormice in their weighing bags. The male weighted 12g and the female 11.5g
The adult female dormouse weighed 18.5g

Once they had been weighed, sexed and generally assessed, the dormice were put safely back into the nest box whilst it was still within the bag and the hole was again stuffed. The box was then put back up onto the tree and the duster removed.

We looked in a second bird nest box and found a second dormouse nest in there as well, although this time it was empty. It appears that the dormice are choosing the heavy ‘woodcrete’ bird boxes over the wooden dormice boxes which are perhaps too hot for them this year.

Although we are yet to find any dormice in the fifty nest boxes that have gone up for them, it is becoming a bit of a tradition to find interesting caterpillars there instead. This time it was a very large and hairy caterpillar inside an otherwise empty box:

It was dark in the box and this photo is not the best but it is just possible to make out that the righthand six spots along the back are oxblood-coloured and the four on the left (the front of the caterpillar) are black. This tells us that it is probably a Gypsy Moth caterpillar.

Gypsy Moths are unfortunately not very good news. The UK did have a population of Gypsy Moths that lived in the fens of East Anglia feeding on bog myrtle and creeping willow, but these became extinct in the early 20th century when their breeding sites were drained. However, in June 1995, a small colony of the mainland European race of Gypsy Moths, able to feed on a wide variety of plants, was discovered in Epping Forest. These moths have now spread to London and parts of the South East of England and they can cause extensive damage, especially to small trees when the caterpillars are present in large densities. We shall just have to wait to see how things progress.

In May we visited the Vercors in France and saw Small Blue butterflies wherever we went – they seem to be doing very well there:

Two Small Blues and a Checkered Skipper in the Vercors

Here in Britain, however, Small Blues are struggling and have suffered worrying declines. Kidney vetch is their sole larval food plant and so they are straight away limited to sites where this grows abundantly. We have a colony of Small Blues here in the meadows and, this year, there is a lot of kidney vetch for them. But that isn’t a given – it is a short-lived perennial plant and I will be collecting seeds in late summer to grow them on, so that I can be sure that there will be plenty again next year as well.

Once mated, female Small Blues spend their time resting and feeding around the kidney vetch

Photos from May in previous years in the meadows

They will also lay their eggs in the flower heads – only a single egg in a flower. The resulting caterpillar will live and grow in the flower, feeding off the seeds, until it is fully grown, when it will descend to the soil to spend the winter as a caterpillar there.

This week I went out into the meadows to search for the caterpillars, which should still be feeding in the kidney vetch flowers at this time of year. I had to look in an awful lot of flowers and, along the way, I saw this bug that I have now identified as a Common Green Caspid bug (Lygocoris panulinus):

Eventually I found what I was looking for, well camouflaged in amongst the seed pods of the flower:

Putting the macro lens on the camera, I got some more detail:

Marjoram is another cherished meadow plant here and is now flowering – an absolute honeypot for butterflies and bees:

Four Marbled Whites on the marjoram

Scabious and knapweed are also high performers at this time of year:

Small Skipper on scabious
Swollen-thighed beetle on scabious

Red valerian is another good one but is starting to go over by now. Hummingbird Hawkmoth are particularly keen on these flowers and we have been seeing one every day recently on the valerian by the allotment. It has an incredibly long ‘tongue’ that it keeps rolled up when not in use.

The individual flower tubes of the red valerian flowers are of considerable length and the nectar is in the spur right at the very bottom, so it is only long-tongued invertebrates that can reach it.

Most invertebrates using the flower will perch on the top of the tube to stick their tongue in but the Hummingbird Hawkmoth doesn’t need to do this and can hover above whilst still reaching that delicious nectar.

Starting to curl its tongue back in as it moves away
Caterpillars of the Large Rose Sawfly, busily defoliating a wild dog rose in the meadows
Gatekeepers are the last butterflies to make an appearance here each year and they emerged this week
Six Spot Burnet Moth
The large Common Drone Fly, Eristalis tenax, a bumblebee mimic, rests on a leaf

I am aware that there are a lot of small summer bees around here that I have never yet attempted to identify. This very tiny bee (about 6mm long) in a bramble flower is one of the ‘mini miners’ – one of many diminutive Andrena mining bee species. It could be a female Hawthorn Mining Bee (Andrea chrysosceles). Little is known about the nesting of this species but it is presumed to nest in the ground on south facing banks and hedgerows – I am amazed about how much there is still to be discovered about the wonderful world of invertebrates.

It has been very, very dry this spring and early summer and the worms will have gone down deep. The blackbirds and song thrushes have no doubt had to find other things to feed to their young and this blackbird has a beakful of grasshoppers and crickets. With their armour plating, these might be difficult for the chicks to digest:

Song thrush with a very meagre offering of something in its beak

Snails are much softer once out of their shells and this innocuous-looking anvil stone has been used by a song thrush to bash snails against to get at the soft flesh within.

An anvil stone surrounded by a sea of broken up snail shells

Magpies and Crows, meanwhile, have been helping themselves to the growing grain in the farmers field alongside the meadows:

Whilst our backs were turned, all our strawberries, cherries, blackcurrants and jostaberries seemed to have mysteriously disappeared from the allotment and garden before we got round to harvesting them. Actually we are pleased to have provided this additional food source for the birds in this dry and difficult year. But, all the same, we were not prepared to take any chances with the gooseberries and these have now been harvested from the bushes.

Gooseberry crumbles in production. These will be going into the freezer to provide glorious pops of summer goodness in the drab depths of winter
Last year we grew sunflowers to provide food for the birds but failed to get round to doing that again this year – although some have self seeded anyway

A sweet visitor to the meadows this week:

It is only in the summer that we get the chance to see the badgers out by day:

When seen in natural light rather than under the infrared of the trail cameras at night, we have realised what differing coloration they have. The badger on the right is distinctly brownish. How interesting that we hadn’t known this before:

Back in the wood, there is a large glade filled with marjoram and we are very excited for it to come into flower to see what butterflies and other invertebrates it will bring in. This hasn’t happened quite yet but, in the meantime, it is the bramble flowers that are pulling in the crowds.

An enormous Hornet Hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, on bramble. At nearly 2cm long, this hoverfly stops you in your tracks. We also saw Silver-washed Fritillaries nectaring up on bramble but failed to get photos

Thistle flowers were also proving popular:

Large Skipper butterfly on thistle

There are a lot of Nursery Web spiders in evidence at the moment. The female carries an egg sac around until the eggs are nearly ready to hatch, at which point she puts it down and builds a web around it to protect the young spiders once they emerge. As an additional security measure, she herself stands guard over it:

A female Nursery Web Spider guarding her web of spiderlings
The spider in more detail
Male Red Long-horned Beetle
A pair of Bullfinches nest in the wood every year. At least I thought it was only one pair, but I wonder now if there are more having seen this photo of two adult males and a female. How lovely
Treecreeper at the pond
Tawny Owl perched near the owl box
Badger out in daylight in the wood as well

The finale for today is from our daughter’s garden in Wye in the North Downs, where they were delighted to see that there has been a new arrival:

A young hedgehog and its parent, at the food and water that is put out for them nightly

In the heat and drought of this year, it feels especially important to leave water out in shallow containers for our garden wildlife. And it would be most appreciated if we could finally have some rain…

Lessons in Photography

We found that we had forgotten all that we ever knew about how to operate our cameras this week when we went on a bird of prey photography session.

The first bird out was this slightly leucistic barn owl, whiter than normal and the go-to bird if they are asked to provide a bird to fly rings up the aisle at a wedding.

There were two different eagle owls flown. First, the magnificent Bengal Eagle Owl:

Then a young Spotted Eagle Owl. This was a big occasion for her because it was the first time she was out flying for a group:

The leather falconry jesses and transmitter dangling from her legs

She started off very wobbly and unsure but then really got into her swing. Next was a Harris Hawk:

And finally a Lanner Falcon. I didn’t even attempt to photograph her in flight because she was so fast. Here she is mantling her wings over the lure after she caught it:

Sky Birds of Prey Display Team in Tonbridge, Kent

We were very pleased with these photos but, then again, we did take 2,000 shots between us so some of them were surely going to be alright. I enjoy photography and am annoyed that I don’t make a greater effort to know my camera better so that I can get more out of it. My Welsh grandfather was a professional photographer for a while, although never of wildlife, and he leaves behind him a wonderful legacy of photographs that are still much loved and appreciated in the family.

Having finished my chocolate, I’m wondering if my sister is prepared to give me some of hers. John Williams 1961

Back in the meadows, this photo from last week had us puzzling over what prey it was in the fox cub’s mouth. Maybe it is a crow – but could it be a black cat?

This reminded me of when our daughter’s cat was desperate to interact with a fox in our garden a few years ago, and used to wait for it under the bird feeder:

The fox was prepared to pander to the cat and allowed itself to be chased off, only to leisurely double back round to the feeder again.

I really hope that the foxes in the meadows are not catching cats, but here is one with a pheasant. Pheasants are only very rarely sighted here – how far do the foxes travel to hunt for their food?

The fox and pheasant also appeared on a second camera:

He has also been seen with a young rabbit this week:

Down by the ponds, there has been another visit by a Grey Wagtail:

And the colour-ringed starling has been seen again, although I still can’t read that ring:

This blackbird has caught a dragonfly:

The Common Darter dragonflies are emerging at the moment and so it was probably one of these in the beak of the bird:

A female Common Darter, just emerged with its shiny wings

I got excited when I saw this damselfly because I thought it was a new species for the meadows:

An apricot-coloured thorax and brown at the end of its tail – I hadn’t seen one like this before

However, on further investigation, I discover that female Blue-tailed damselflies, a common species for the meadows, have five different colour forms and this is the one called infuscens-obsoleta.

A crow brings an large piece of bread to the water to soften it:

And tenderly feeds some of it to its chick:

Marjoram, beloved of all sorts of bees and butterflies, is just coming out into flower in the meadows:

Marbled White on marjoram

And in the allotment, a parsley plant is going to seed and was covered in hundreds of these Common Red Soldier Beetles, easily recognisable by the distinctive black tip to the wing cases:

The meadows are cut once a year and all cut material needs to be taken off in order to slowly remove nutrients from this ex-agricultural land. Lower nutrient levels disadvantage bullying grasses and so allow other plants to flourish. In the autumn, an enormous pile of the cut hay is created in each meadow. These then slowly reduce in size as bags of the hay go out with the fortnightly green waste recycling throughout the next year – until it is time to start all over again.

One of these piles of hay had a Buff-tailed Bumblebee nest in it and this has been dug out by a badger to get at the bee larvae. Badgers have an amazing sense of smell and, not only can they smell the bee nest, they can also smell when it is at the right stage to make it worth their while going in to rob it:

The hay pile, dug out at the bottom

The bees were to be seen wandering around in disarray:

Then the queen, twice the size of the other bees, flew in and crawled into a crevice at the back of the diggings. All the other bees piled in on top of her:

Perhaps they are going to try to rebuild the nest, although I’m sure it will only get dug out again.

This was an interesting pattern to see on the steamy window of the bathroom:

A house fly’s mouthparts are only designed to suck up liquids. If it wants to eat solid food, it secretes saliva and digestive enzymes out though its proboscis, waits for a few seconds for the enzymes to break the food down into a liquid, and then sucks everything back in again. But, here, it is simply drinking up the condensation on the window, whilst creating the intricate pattern that caught our eye:

I also found this Common Zebra Spider on the bathroom floor this week. Not sure how it got there, but I took its picture as I was taking it safely back outside:

This tiny jumping spider accurately locates its prey with those enormous four front eyes and then jumps on it

In the wood, we have now completed the second of our monthly dormouse nest box monitoring visits and again, sadly, there were no signs of dormice. All the Blue Tit nests in the boxes are now finished and are abandoned.

We did, however, find this beautifully camouflaged hairy caterpillar curled up on one of the old nests:

It is the caterpillar of the Buff Footman moth and is probably about to pupate.

I saw two of these male Red Longhorn Beetles sitting on dogwood leaves and looking rather splendid:

And this Comma butterfly was posing so nicely for me on an oak tree:

It has been some time since we caught up with our son who is spending a year travelling around the world with his girlfriend. They have left the Americas and are now in Africa. After an eye-opening several weeks volunteering at a school in Tanzania, they have visited Uganda and are currently in Kenya.

Teaching at a kindergarten in Tanzania

They have seen these domesticated Sanga cattle throughout their travels in Africa
The Lipstick Bird, or Great Blue Turaco, seen in Uganda
Lionesses at Maasai Mara park in Kenya

Their next stop is Sri Lanka. By now, it seems to us like they have been travelling forever. But we are expecting them home in a couple of months, and what tales of their adventures they will have to tell.

The Longest Day

The year has now rolled past its tipping point and the days are inexorably starting to shorten once again – but there is still a whole lot of summer left and we intend to make the most of it.

On the longest day we returned to Reculver, near Herne Bay on the north coast of Kent, to give the dog an outing and see how the Sand Martin colony was getting on.

The imposing twin towers of the medieval church at Reculver

Strung along the cliff there are clusters of Sand Martin burrows and, around them, the air becomes wonderfully alive with the calls of Sand Martins as they bring food in for their chicks and take out their faecal sacs.

Sand Martins – a brown and white hirundine with a broad brown chest band

This next photo was taken of an adult Sand Martin just about to emerge from its burrow on the right with a faecal sac in its beak. It was only when I was going through the photos later that I saw the three chicks huddled together in another hole on the left:

Two more chicks peering out of their hole:

I came across a blog of someone who has been birding in the Reculver area for many decades. He reported that there are only about thirty pairs here this year which is much lower than normal. Since this is the first year that we have visited the colony, we didn’t know to be depressed about this and were actually delighted with the nesting birds that we saw.

Although we did notice that this section of Sand Martin burrows, nearest to Reculver, was completely devoid of birds:

Let us hope that this year is a blip for them. We shall visit again next year and hope for better things.

There are a thousand or so different plant galls in Britain, where an insect or other organism co-opts a plant into forming a protective structure to assist it through a particular stage of its lifecycle. There are fifty different galls on our oaks trees alone. We were on holiday recently with a lady who was fascinated with galls, particularly their artistic form so that she could draw them, and I think she would have liked this attractive one that we found on ground ivy in the wood this week:

A red hairy sphere on a ground ivy leaf
The underside of the leaf

The gall is caused by the gall wasp Liposthenes glechomae and the sphere will contain a single wasp larva at its centre:

A gall cut in half to reveal the wasp larva. Photo courtesy of bladmineerders.nl under ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

The larva pupates in the galls over winter and the new adult will emerge in late spring

It was a dull day in the wood and this well camouflaged Hummingbird Hawk moth was resting on the woodland floor, awaiting some sunshine

I have lost count but I think that it is about ten Great Spotted Woodpeckers that have been caught and ringed in the wood this spring. Possibly our peanut feeder is bringing them in from far and wide.

A ringed male with red at the back of his head

During a ringing session in the wood this week, a juvenile with its red cap was also ringed.

A juvenile, although its right leg isn’t visible to check if this is the one that was ringed

A badger cub with its parent in the wood:

A male badger out in the wood at first light
A woodland fox
A buzzard at the owl box
Bullfinches breed in the wood each summer

Once again, the camera looking at the woodpecker hole in the cherry tree has caught a bat going in to roost in there: